Milwaukee Bowling History

The presence of bowling has been felt in Milwaukee since the mid-19th century. For example, JB’s on 41 has been calling the city of Milwaukee our home for many years. The building has hosted bowling over 50 years when it was first called Olympic Recreation, then Olympic Lanes. As the ways people find their entertainment have changed, so has our name and brand image to reflect that trend. However, we still hold on to our original core values of bringing family and friends together to connect them to fun entertainment experiences that involve creating new memories as well as building community.

At JB’s on 41, we could not deliver a unique bowling family fun center experience without also taking into account Milwaukee bowling history. Many contributions created the culture of what bowling is known for in Milwaukee today. Read on for highlights of a few important Milwaukee bowling history moments. Modern experiences at JB’s on 41 are influenced by our past Milwaukee bowling history, as well as by our present.

Ancient Bowling History

According to, bowling was experienced around the world for thousands of years. For example, bowling balls and pins were found inside of a tomb of an Egyptian king who died in 5,200 B.C. Additionally, ancient Polynesians bowled on lanes that were 60 feet long… the length of modern lanes today. Bowling was a part of a religious ceremony in fourth century Germany. Bowling was even banned in Britain as kings Edward II and Richard II said people were wasting too much time playing it. But luckily bowling wasn’t banned for good.

As the centuries went on, the history of bowling continued to evolve as European countries traded, colonized, and citizens immigrated around the world. Later, in the 19th century, the history of bowling in Milwaukee really began.

Milwaukee Bowling History

There were many manufacturing jobs available in Milwaukee during the 19th century. The large number of jobs available attracted working-class immigrants. According to Doug Schmidt, a Wisconsin bowling historian and author of They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America’s Tenpin Capital, in 1850, two out of three Milwaukee residents originated from Germany and Austria. Many German-American communities formed, building gymnastic and cultural centers called Turner clubs. These clubs often included bowling lanes.

Several of these halls were built in the Milwaukee area. For example, the first entrepreneur to establish a bowling emporium in the middle of Milwaukee’s commercial district was Abe Langtry. He opened 24 bowling alleys in a building at Second Street and Wisconsin Avenue during the 1890s.

Milwaukee and the American Bowling Congress

A decade later, the newly formed American Bowling Congress came to Milwaukee to host its 1905 national championship tournament. Two years later, Abe Langtry was elected as the secretary of the ABC. The headquarters of the ABC were then located in an office building on Wisconsin Avenue. Langtry led the organization for 25 years. He successfully promoted Milwaukee as the bowling center capital and influenced Milwaukee’s bowling history during the 20th Century. What an exciting time for Milwaukee bowling history!

According to the Shepherd Express article, “Schmidt rolls strike with bowling history book”, Milwaukee had a record-setting 760 bowling teams and 2,766 league bowlers in 1924. These totals went above much larger cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. Bowling was a popular pastime throughout the US. Just eleven years later, in 1935, Milwaukee was fifth in the nation for bowling leagues. Nearby Chicago came in at 493 leagues, but Chicago had nearly six times the population of Milwaukee.

As the decades went on, numbers of membership continued to grow within the ABC. Plus, the invention of the automatic pinsetter allowed the construction of new lanes. After WWII ended, more than 20,000 lanes were built around the country from 1945 to 1957. As Milwaukee families grew and began to spend more time at local bowling centers, many of these centers transformed. Adding snack bars, coffee shops, cocktail lounges and even nurseries attracted this new demographic. By 1980, membership for the ABC was at its highest. At 9 million members total, this amount included 100,000 league bowlers from just the Milwaukee area alone. This was an amazing fact considering Milwaukee’s population at that time was only around 636,000.

Modern Milwaukee Bowling History

Milwaukee’s bowling history changed during the 1980s. Bowling leagues started to see a decline in membership due in part to changes in society. As more factories closed, less bowling leagues were created. Additionally, more people enjoyed open bowling with their family and friends, instead of joining leagues. USA today says this was because of a trend of living a faster paced-lifestyle, with families wanting to find new entertainment pastimes. This often meant less time commitment, and expense changes. In turn, many Milwaukee bowling alleys closed their doors after decades of being the place for social, local and family entertainment.

But in recent years, bowling has seen a revitalized comeback and more. Many individuals desire a unique entertainment experience on the lanes than what had been traditionally found in the past. Therefore, some bowling centers such as ours have adapted to fit this change within society.

Bowling Alley Transforms into Family Fun Center

In 2012, JB’s on 41 revamped our center with a multi-million renovation and changed our name from Olympic Lanes. We created a center that gives its visitors more than just a place to bowl. We have created an entertainment venue that is a home for family fun, a place for friends to connect, as well as an innovative space for company events and organizations.

JB’s on 41 still has its 25 original lanes, but we also have an additional 10 customized lanes in the luxury Suite 41 lounge. Our pub-style restaurant called the Junction Bar and Grill prepares made-from-scratch meals and specialty drinks. We have a large Speed Zone Game Room with redemption, as well as sand volleyball court and bags leagues. Other updates include a rotating schedule of free bowling sessions and daily specials called Weekly to Do List.

These changes may not give us a historical appearance of a traditional bowling alley, but they keep us connected to the changing interests. Although Milwaukee’s bowling history plays a role within our center’s values of superior service and making memories, we have adapted JB’s on 41 for the changing future of bowling entertainment in Milwaukee. We respect our roots and still host leagues for both casual and competitive bowlers.
To experience these changes for yourself, make a point to stop into JB’s on 41 Family Fun Center. To share memories of your own Milwaukee Bowling History, comment on this blog or share on Facebook.